History: November 6, 1789: John Carroll Becomes 1st Catholic Bishop in USA

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A Brief History

On November 6, 1789, Pope Pius VI appointed Jesuit priest John Carroll as the first Catholic bishop in the United States, although he had earlier been ex-communicated! Carroll was born on a plantation in Maryland in 1735 to Daniel I and Eleanor Carroll, part of the Carroll family that had helped develop the Maryland colony (Province of Maryland).

Digging Deeper

John’s brother, Daniel II, was a signer of both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States, one of only 5 men to do so. Thus, the Carroll family certainly had its share of significance, but unfortunately, part of their legacy as plantation owners was to also own slaves. John Carroll himself owned a slave as a servant, and apparently was ok with human slavery, a fact that would later haunt his legacy and embarrass Georgetown University in Washington D.C.(which he founded and is the oldest Catholic university in the US) and John Carroll University in Cleveland (named after him). Carroll’s attitude toward slavery changed over time from a paternalistic view (Black slaves as childlike) to an eventual view of freeing the slaves, but only gradually so as not to traumatize the slaves by sudden freedom in a society not ready for emancipation. He favored voluntary freeing of slaves rather than by the force of law. In fact, Georgetown University actually owned slaves itself!

Carroll joined the Jesuits (Society of Jesus), the intellectual and academic order of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium where he was studying at the age of 18. John was joined in his studies by his cousin, Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and later the first Senator from Maryland. John was ordained as a priest in 1769 and was teaching in Europe until Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Jesuits, when Carroll returned to Maryland.

As laws in many American colonies were anti-Catholic, there was no Catholic parish in Maryland, so John founded one in 1774 in what is now Silver Spring. During this time John also worked as a missionary in Maryland and Virginia, spreading the faith until he was asked by the Continental Congress to travel with a delegation (including cousin Charles and Ben Franklin)to Quebec in 1776 in an effort to persuade residents of Quebec to join in the fight against England. It was because of this expedition that the Bishop of Quebec ex-communicated John Carroll from the Catholic Church. Carroll ignored this action, and returned to Maryland where he and 5 other priests organized the Catholic Church within the United States. With the recommendation of Franklin, the Vatican allowed Carroll to head the Catholic Church in the US, and elevated him to Bishop in 1789. The Continental Congress paved the way for this appointment by assuring the Vatican that the US would not object to a Catholic Bishop in America.

Carroll, true to the academic roots of his order, founded Georgetown University, established in 1789 and teaching students in 1791, the first Catholic (and first Jesuit) college or university in the US. (The school boasts 8 former heads of state as alumni, including former US President Bill Clinton.)

Carroll was involved in many more projects than merely those listed here, and his legacy is substantial, benefiting the Catholic Church, the Society of Jesus, and the academic standing of the United States. The slaveholding past of Carroll and his family has been recognized by universities with ties to this eclectic bishop, and owning the past has included programs meant to deal with this part of his legacy and the legacy of slave holding past by Georgetown University. (Georgetown gives priority to the descendants of those slaves they once owned for admission, actually reaching out to known descendants.) John Carroll certainly ranks among those men that helped build the United States.  Question for students (and subscribers): What else do you think Georgetown U should do for descendants of former slaves?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Guilday, Peter.  The Life and Times of John Carroll, Archbishop of Baltimore (1735-1815).  Sagwan Press, 2015.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.